Nowadays, we explain transgenerational trauma with epigenetics. I like the fanciful, unscientific explanation from psychoanalysis: the parents’ unresolved trauma is passed on from their unconscious to the unconscious of their children.
This blog has been a lot about my Holocaust issues. I really didn’t like how Rachel Marie Stone was dealing with hers in the New York Times: How Not to Be Afraid. Childhood fears of the apocalypse because of a family history of Jewishness, evangelical Christianity, and a (Jewish) neo-Nazi grandfather.
I now have two sons, a third grader and a fifth grader. They know of Hitler’s existence, though I’ve withheld the details. They know about their great-grandfather in general terms, too. They know he was a creative inventor and an illusion-loving showman, but not a very nice man. I don’t mention armbands, portraits of Himmler and unspeakable racist jokes. I’m not sure when I’ll bring that up, or how. I know that it’s a privilege to shelter children, and it’s one I’m clinging to.
In second grade, I once raised my hand and compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. I didn’t know exactly what I was talking about, but my parents gave me more of a clue than that and left the news on when I was in the room.
My parents raised me to worry about those less fortunate than me. They didn’t raise me to say shit like “it’s a privilege and it’s one that I’m clinging to.” They didn’t believe in lying to children, in general, ideologically. No Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy for me. It’s actually a less narcissistic approach to parenting, because it prepares you for adulthood instead of making you something cute for your parents to look at.
My sons also know something about the election and Mr. Trump, but again, I’ve left much unsaid. We talk about hate and disrespect but we don’t get into particulars. I turn the radio off when they enter the room.
For now, I encourage their knowledge of — and love for — Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks and other heroes of the civil rights movement. Together, we seek out inspiring civic and cultural figures to learn about, and I try to nurture their patriotic interest in politics and government by explaining how it all works.
I know I will have to talk with them about hate and how biases form in us and others. Having a white supremacist in the family has instilled in me a painful vigilance about my child rearing, as well as a zeal for building bridges over cultural divisions.
But I don’t want them to build their lives around anger, and resistance fueled solely by fear begets only more fear. Cleareyed vigilance and action, motivated by joyful resistance, is a possibility for all of us.
Not being afraid is called “being a chump” in some situations. A white lady citing a bunch of black civil rights heroes and telling me to be joyful on the day of Trump’s inauguration can FUCK OFF. When she’s done educating her kid about Ruby Bridges, she should talk about how things didn’t turn out so great for Ella Eckford. Andrea Dworkin talked about being Jewish and growing up horrified by the details of the Holocaust. She turned out better than this Rachel Stone lady. Stone is one of the white moderates that MLK correctly identified as a bigger obstacle than the Klan.
Sue Erickson Bloland, talking about how she had a secret disabled brother in an institution and the family couldn’t talk about it (In the Shadow of Fame):
Dad confided to Robert Lifton years later that he had told us Neil died to protect us from a more terrible truth. I have my own view, however, of why parents choose to shield their children, inappropriately, from reality. Most often it protects the parents themselves from having to deal directly with issues they find too painful to confront. There is no doubt in my mind that my parents were unable to confide in us about a situation that was simply overwhelming to them.
[emotional infidelity issues in the marriage]
How was I to make sense of the fact that my parents were so tortured during these years? If Neil had died, why could they not grieve and gradually recover from this tragedy, turning to us, their surviving children, for solace? Why were they still so anguished after two, three, or even five years over something that was, presumably, in the past? Why was Neil, a phantom child, still with us, draining the vitality from our private family life? I was not to learn until I was thirteen that Neil was, in fact, still alive, having outlasted all predictions of his early demise. He survived to the remarkable age of twenty-one, reminding my parents with each birthday that the experts on whom they had relied had underestimated the potential of their child.
Bloland has great insight into her father:
Dad had just emerged from a severe depression when he first met Mother, and he struggled with a depressive tendency all his life. His childhood experience of abandonment and rejection had left him plagued with self-doubt–not about his intellectual abilities, but about his more fundamental adequacy as a human being. In the intellectual realm, paradoxically, he possessed the monumental self-confidence and personal courage required to forge a new and brilliant path in psychoanalysis; but in the realm of intimate relationships he felt deeply insecure and unsure of his footing. He craved constant support, guidance, and reassurance from others. And when that was not available–as during the period of his youthful wanderings through Europe–he became more and more emotionally unstable, until he could no longer function on his own, and returned home. Those years of wandering demonstrated how difficult it was for Dad to care for himself, physically or emotionally. His depression only lifted when his friend Peter Blos arranged for his trip to Vienna and provided (together with his analyst, Anna Freud) the necessary emotional sustenance and guidance to help him adapt there. But it was my mother who offered Dad the lifelong source of security–the emotional anchor–he needed to realize his full potential as a brilliant intellectual.
The Drama of the Gifted Child explains why:
In my work with people in the helping professions, I have often been confronted with a childhood history that seems significant to me.
- There was a mother who at the core was emotionally insecure and who depended for her equilibrium on her child’s behaving in a particular way. This mother was able to hide her insecurity from her child and from everyone else behind a hard, authoritarian, even totalitarian facade.
- This child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to the need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.
- This role secured “love” for the child–that is, his parents’ exploitation. He could sense that he was needed, and this need guaranteed him a measure of existential security.
This ability is then extended and perfected. Later, these children not only become mothers (confidantes, comforters, advisers, supporters) of their own mothers but also take over at least part of the responsibility for their siblings and eventually develop a special sensitivity to unconscious signals manifesting the needs of others. No wonder they often choose to become psychotherapists later on. Who else, without this previous history, would muster sufficient interest to spend their whole day trying to discover what is happening in other people’s unconscious?
There’s been a real change in the intellectual climate. I think I’m out of step with the world because so much of my reading has been from the 1950s-1980s, when there were more Holocaust survivors alive and “make sure the Holocaust doesn’t happen again” was what intellectuals did. Here we have the New York Times featuring someone flippantly talking about using their privilege to shield their kid from understanding what’s bad about Hitler. On the day of Trump’s inauguration. It’s shameful that it’s not seen as shameful.
This is exactly how white fragility is produced. Stone’s children are learning that some things, like the history of the modern world, are just too upsetting for anyone to think about, ever. She has no concept that it used to be normal for all thinking adults to wring their hands about it. It used to be normal for adults to be over there in it. White fragility does more to prevent racial dialogue than talking about Rosa Parks in February does to promote it. It’s not even close.
“What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream in the oven.” I heard that on the playground, and so will her precious innocent children. The absurdity of thinking they won’t somehow encounter Holocaust imagery, especially now that Hitler is cool again.
By promoting narcissism, consumer culture promotes narcissistic parenting.